Blue moms, red dads, continued

Motherhood makes a bigger political difference than fatherhood, but provider anxiety should not be dismissed

Published September 10, 2009 6:35PM (EDT)

Steven Greene, the North Carolina State professor whose research on how parenthood changes politics I blogged about yesterday, writes in to note that the liberalizing effect on mothers is much stronger than the conservative impact on fathers.

That is women with children are often more liberal, but dads are, more often than not, no different than men without children. When we do see these conservative differences for dads, we hypothesize that the Republican rhetoric has largely been effective, e.g., men want to keep the government out of their way in providing for their family. For example, men actually start working more when they have kids thus lower taxes means more take-home pay to provide for the family rather than appreciating the government services that benefit children/families.

The fact that a majority of dads do not change their political allegiance after parenthood suggests that the press release from N.C. State pushed by EurekAlert slightly misrepresented Greene's conclusions. However, Larry Letich, a psychotherapist in Bethesda, Md., offers a thoughtful response explaining why the minority might become more conservative that feels intuitively on-the-mark to me.

To begin with, social science research going back about 15 years, but which is most likely still true, shows that when most couples have their first child, the wife (now a new mother) becomes strongly identified with her role as caregiver while the husband and new father becomes more identified with his role as provider, often working longer hours and devoting himself more diligently to his career. (This usually results in tension within the couple, but that's a whole different topic.)

Since most American men work in business, becoming more invested in being a provider may mean identifying more with the attitudes of one's employer. Men may take on the attitude that "everyone must pull their weight; the boss deserves the money he gets; anybody can succeed and if you don't, it's your own fault." Being a renegade, even secretly, is not a good way to get the bosses in your company to like you and consider you promotable.

What's more, American liberalism has been totally fixated for at least 30 years on what you called "nanny-statism" (the providing of more and better social services to people) and not on any meaningful kind of critique of the bosses who run America. There really isn't much in the liberal message or the liberal legislative agenda that speaks directly to the problems of men who are trying to be good fathers and providers. A politician who could figure out a way to address the stress of the average middle-class American male in a meaningful way -- protecting their jobs or their incomes when practically any kind of work can be shipped overseas to enrich the ultra-wealthy, for example -- that politician would start seeing more support from middle-class men. He or she'd have a hard row to hoe, though, since any powerful person who questioned the "You-can-be-a-millionaire-if-you-want-to-be-so-stop-complaining" attitude that has ruled America since 1981 would be attacked a million times a day by the right wing noise machine, now made noisier and even nastier by all the twittering idiots they've empowered to do their dirty work.

Speaking purely personally, the first paragraph of Letich's e-mail resonates very strongly with my own experience (from the father side of the equation, not the mother's).

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Fatherhood How The World Works Liberalism Motherhood